The quote above comes from George Orwell's essay on Charles Dickens. Orwell describes a true liberal as a bold intellect that is equally hated by all those 'smelly' orthodoxies of their day. A person of free intelligence who writes openly and without fear, and is generously angry with the prevailing falsehoods of the day.
One of the gems from the James Buchanan archives is a 1982 paper of his that picks up on this Orwell theme and applies it to the experiences he and his colleagues had to face in pursuing the public choice research program in economics and political science. The essay is titled "The Diswater of Orthodoxies" and he claims that the orthodoxies he faced in methodology of the social sciences, the method of analysis in the social and policy sciences, and implications of that analysis for political economy and social philosophy while not "smelly" was nevertheless dangerous. The reason why the orthodoxies he and his colleagues faced didn't smell is because they weren't alive enough to stink, the orthodoxies Buchanan faced were "dull, dead, drab, dirty." But as Buchanan is quick to point out, one can drown in dishwater nevertheless.
It is the dull, dead, drab and dirty dishwater of social scientific orthodoxy mid-20th century that had to be resisted, and effectively drained away so that a new science of association among free and responsible individuals could be developed. Those who held as sacrosanct the efficacy of majoritian democracy or the necessary efficiency of modern bureaucracy had to be disabused of such notions. This requires disruptive intellectuals. Those who are comfortable in their academic life don't want to permit the methodological re-evaluation required. They resist change and seek to cast out the heretic. But as Buchanan points out, when the only recourse left is dismisive name-calling, that means the hetetic has won because the opposition is out of genuine argument.
"The genuine innovator-entrepreneur," Buchahan writes, "who seeks to challenge, to stir up the dishwater of the orthodoxy, must expect to counter resistence at every stage. At best, he and his fellow [heretics] can hope to find academic settings that are temporarily congenial to their efforts, settings that encourage those who dare to be different."
The context of this essay is the last Liberty Fund sponsored summer conference in Blacksburg, as Buchanan and his colleagues at the Center for Study of Public Choice had recently decided to leave VPI and relocate at GMU. There is a sort of "edge" to the essay, but an edge that in the context makes perfect sense, and as with Orwell's description of Dicken's Buchanan is being generously angry and not at all gratuitously angry, and he is writing openly, without fear, and embracing his responsibilities as a person of free intelligence. This is the James Buchanan I had as a teacher --- Dare to be Different --- was his motto to all of us, but also he made us believe that our job wasn't either to ignore the dishwater let alone to merely learn to swim in it, but instead to stir it up, and to unclog the drain so it could be washed away.
As I read these various pieces from the Buchanan collection I am transported back in time to a young man in his early 20s trying to figure out how to be a professional economist. How amazingly lucky was I that I had James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and Kenneth Boulding to learn from?! Of course, my other teachers such as Bob Tollison, Karen Vaughn, Viktor Vanberg, and of course my advisor Don Lavoie taught me so much. But to have your professor win the Nobel Prize, and then to have the AEA Distinguished Fellow and the 2nd John Bates Clark Medalist reinforce the message that your job was to stir up the dishwater of the orthodoxy and to unclog the drain and wash the dull, dead, drab and dirty water away. We never wanted to be like Harvard-MIT crowd because the Harvard-MIT crowd constituted the dishwater of the orthodoxy.
I am not sure as a teacher I have been able to instill in my students this same sense of urgency in challenging the prevailing orthodoxy -- especially in more recent years as opposed to my earlier years at GMU and with students from the period 1998-2005. Post-2005, I often wonder if the practical advice about how to exist within a profession defined by the dishwater has been taken as a lesson in swimming rather than stiring things up. If it has, that was a mistake. Reading Buchanan inspires and reminds me of the sense of purpose he instilled in us as students. Boulding, as well, taught us about the sheer joy of learning and the urgency of the problems we were attempting to tackle. And Tullock, well Gordon, his great strength was to suggest complete irreverence for anything established (or not established).
I hope my students --- past, present, and future --- are generously angry and willing to stir up the dishwater of the orthodoxy, and unclog the drain and wash the dull, dead, drab and dirty away and substitute in fresh thinking in methodology, methods of analysis, and bold implications for political economy and social philosophy. There are plenty of "smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls" that must be challenged anew by mainline economic thinkers.